Musing on Unanswered Questions

Musing on Unanswered Questions

Meta Lee Van Sickle, Merrie Koester
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9631-8.ch001
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Out of a conversation between two long-time colleagues—each a science educator and practicing artist—emerged the question, “What does it mean to STEAMify a lesson, and why would a teacher actually choose to do such a thing, other than, say, for-grant-writing-purposes?” Their science selves really liked the idea of a STEAM system, acted upon by forces, both from the outside and from within, and with energy flowing and cycling, all the while transforming grey matter in ways that sustained the teaching/learning process. When it came to their art; however, their dialogue followed pathways grooved by long years of practice and hard work in their respective fields. One author is a seasoned vocalist, trained in the nuances of both individual and group vocal performance as well as the attendant dimensions of music, its composition and phraseology. The other is a painter, poet, and novelist, shaping words, color, and line to tell stories and communicate ideas. What was significant to each was that their artistic habits of mind had shaped their axiology, transforming their ways teaching.
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Why should just one more in an interminable line of educational acronyms or slogans actually matter? Is STEAM really different, or is it another fad? That the idea of STEAM has even emerged in the first place implies some underlying and global lack of creativity and imagination in both science and STEM education. And yet, we have personally observed many such teachers employing highly artistic teaching styles, flexibly improvising and adapting to changing situations and student needs all while driving home the message that in the end (as Eisner has said), education is the act of inventing yourself through hard work, practice, failing, and trying again. There is no kit with instructions for the making of the self. Such an effort begins with and is sustained by the individual. We are calling for a kind of STEAM education that develops the habits of mind associated with making art, which includes the practice of critique and care throughout the learning/making process. Such STEAM educators would recognize that what educators Hetland, Winner, Veenema, and Sheridan (2013) describe as “studio thinking” is highly congruent with the Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013, Figure 1).

We advocate for a kind of STEAM that builds in time for critique to help students learn to observe, interpret, explain, and evaluate (Hetland, Winner, Veenema, & Sheridan, 2013). Through the imagery of musicianship— be that improvisation, composition, or the interpretation of its performance—we will introduce a model of teaching science as aesthetic inquiry that we think can move students away from alienation and towards affiliation with science and STEM education. Our aesthetic model foregrounds knowing as communal and value-laden, rather than as a static, detached, objective process of naming and identifying. Aesthetic inquirers recognize that the creative process (always present at the heart of science) spirals outward through cacophony and chaos, and that neat, harmonious compositions may not

Figure 1.

Comparison of art studio habits and NGSS science and engineering practices


always be the result, especially as new and yet unanswered questions emerge. Finally, we have conceptualized this form of STEAM education as a kind of communal making—one that unites the head, heart, and hands as ideas and learning artifacts are constructed. We fully recognize that our approach may evoke responses ranging from dissonance to resonance and that there is no one best way to do STEAM education.


The Resonance/Dissonance Dialectic

When people are deeply connected positively with one another, they are often described as being tuned into one another, on the same wavelength, or in complete harmony. Their emotional and intellectual frequencies are in resonance, and they can often anticipate the other’s next phrase. They listen to one another attentively and appreciatively, until and unless they are interrupted by a noise, which suddenly knocks them out of synch and forces them to attend to the distraction. They may even become irritable. How dare an intruder ruffle the smooth texture of their discourse and introduce tension into their relationship! Do they really have to listen to such noise? There are many educators who may criticize STEAM education as not-science or not-STEM. We recognize that we may not even approach equilibrium with these individuals. For them, even the idea of STEAM introduces too much cognitive dissonance and threatens their sense of should and ought. But we wonder, too, if the arts were a significant part of their own education, and if so, how were such experiences organized for them?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Dialectic: The exploration of seemingly contradictory ideas and the relationships between them. It employs logical argumentation techniques to search for a unity of opposites.

Dynamics: Musical conductors use dynamics to achieve entirely different effects. Dynamics can include anything from loudness and softness (volume) to fast and slow (tempo).

Voice: At a minimum, this is the utterance of the possible sounds a human can make. At a maximum, voice is the ability to express personal ideas.

Resonance: In music, resonance is the compounding of sound waves so that what you get is more than the sum of the parts. As a metaphor for teaching and learning, resonance is the achievement of synergy—when all the parts of the system unite to produce a level of learning not possible if the elements were separated. It often manifests as joy and exuberance. It’s a beautiful thing.

Constructionism: A learning theory developed by Seymour Papert, in which he contends that you have to make it to learn it. Learning is achieved through the making of a public artifact, which is then critiqued. This shareable construction may take the form of a robot, musical composition, paper-mache volcano, poem, conversation, or new hypothesis. We believe that this theory holds a key to understanding and developing the potential of what is now being called a Maker Movement.

Spatial Music: A modern music composition technique that purposefully uses the location of the instruments to achieve different effect. Charles Ives’s “Unanswered Question” of 1906 was the first ever 20 th century composition to feature spatial separation as a major element.

Semiotics: The study of the meaning-making process, or semiosis. In Peirce’s theory of signs, semiosis depends on the triadic interaction between an object in the world, a sign or symbol that re-presents that object (or phenomenon), and the way(s) a person in a given culture or situation interpret(s) that contextual sign.

Dissonance: In music, the sine waves of pitch interfere with each other to the point that the sound may cause the human ear to react with discomfort. As a metaphor for teaching and learning, being off-pitch can have a deadening effect on the lesson.

Critique: A process described by Yasmin Kafai as the ways in which a learning artifact is analyzed and reviewed in a social context. In the process, connections between old and new knowledge can be made.

Axiology: The philosophical study of value. It typically involves the discussion of both ethics and aesthetics.

Aesthetics of Care: Using the arts to develop an appreciation of how learning through them can create multisensory ways into learning. In this work, we try to show how the aesthetics of care is directly linked to an ethic of care.

Aesthetic Inquiry: We employ Maxine Greene’s conceptualization of this concept, which features a curriculum that begins with and is sustained by noticing what there is to be noticed. The lesson progresses through a participatory engagement with the arts, as new connections are made and conceptual relationships evolve.

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